the college student, snacking on a bag of chips while slaving over a term paper. Or the businessman, scarfing down a bagel on his way to work. Or the single mom, swinging through the drive through after picking the kids up from school.

When life gets busy, the first thing to go is a proper diet. Busyness eats up spare time and leads to stress. That spare time might otherwise have gone to cooking, and stress tends to cloud judgement, resulting in poor dietary decisions. Unfortunately, this creates a snowball effect.

Diet and mood are intrinsically linked, and it’s often hard to distinguish cause from effect. While a full schedule undoubtedly gets in the way of good eating, food itself actually alters mood too.

Serotonin, a chemical produced in the brain, affects mood by transmitting messages from one area of the brain to another — in particular, to the brain cells that regulate mood and well-being. To simplify the issue, the more serotonin present, the better your mood.

Serotonin is created by the brain; it’s not an outside agent that can be injected into your bloodstream. But if you understand the production process, you can put your body in the right circumstances to produce it. For the most part, this comes down to diet.

Eat good protein to get tryptophan

Amongst the amino acids contained in protein is tryptophan. Eating foods like fish, game meat, poultry, and eggs fills your bloodstream with protein, which then breaks down into its many amino acids. Once the tryptophan reaches the brain, it’s processed into serotonin.

Ironically, though, a protein-heavy diet itself will actually slow serotonin production. When protein breaks down, it releases numerous amino acids, all of which are competing for space in the bloodstream. This creates a traffic jam of sorts, slowing tryptophan’s journey to the brain. To fix this, you need to…

Eat good carbs to clear the path 

Carbohydrates — found in grains, nuts, fruits/vegetables, and (of course) refined sugar — trigger the release of insulin, which causes amino acids to absorb into the bloodstream. Most amino acids, that is. Insulin doesn’t affect tryptophan. It does, though, clear the roadways for tryptophan’s trip to the brain.

But you can’t follow up protein with any carbohydrate — the trick is to eat the right carbs. Sugar and white breads certainly release insulin and spark serotonin production, but it’s too much too fast. The tryptophan gets used up abruptly, and serotonin levels fluctuate, resulting in mood swings.

Better carb options are wheat breads, fruits/vegetables, and nuts.

Be aware of other factors

Food affects mood in a variety of ways. In addition to the serotonin cycle, there’s the placebo effect and sensory association. Sugar leads to a spike in carbs/energy, but that may not be why kids bounce off walls at a birthday party — it might just be they’re at a birthday party and feed off each other’s energy. Association works when your senses, a particular smell or taste, triggers a memory. The smell of peach cobbler may take you back to your grandmother’s house, triggering a good mood.

Many other foods, such as dark chocolate, trigger good chemical effects, too.

Monitor your cravings

When your mood swings low or life gets stressful, what do you want? What’s your “comfort food?”

Most people crave sweet things — chocolate, candy, pie, etc. While the carb intake will increase serotonin, keep a close eye on how you respond to those cravings. Respond wisely, with good carbs, and you could get the energy you need to pull yourself up by your dietary bootstraps. Respond poorly, and you may just dig yourself deeper into the cycle of low mood, bad eating.